Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – According to Some Key Suttā

Revised: January 20, 2016; December 3, 2017; January 26, 2018; July 2, 2020

The key to understanding the First Noble Truth (Dukkha Sacca; pronounced “dukkha sachcha”) is to understand the Three Characteristics or Tilakkhana of “this wider world of 31 realms”, i.e., anicca, dukkha, anatta. Let us discuss a few key suttā.

Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)

1. How suffering arises from anicca is explicitly described in the very first sutta, Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta (SN 56.11). Here is the text from the sutta:

Idam kho pana, bhikkhave, dukkham ariyasaccam:

jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhāṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhāṃ—saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā.

2. Bhikkhus, What is the Noble Truth of Suffering?

  • jātipi dukkhā” means “birth causes suffering” (all births end up in suffering and death). “jarā pi dukkhā” means, “decay of something that is liked causes suffering.” And “maranan pi dukkhā” means, “Death of a liked causes suffering.”
  • Then comes, “..appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho,” meaning, “it brings sorrow when a loved one has to depart, and it also brings sorrow to be with a hated person.”

3. And then the summary of all that: “yamp’iccham (yam pi iccham) na labhati tam’pi dukkhām.” Here we see, “ichcha” that we encountered in both anicca, dukkha, anatta, and also in Paṭicca Samuppāda (“pati+ichcha” “sama+uppada”). And “labhati” means “get.”

Anatta Lakkhana Sutta

4. The Buddha delivered Anattā Lakkhana Sutta (SN 22.59) to the five ascetics within a fortnight of the above first sutta. The following are some questions that the Buddha asked the ascetics.

Taṃ kiṃ maññatha, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ niccaṃaniccaṃ vā”ti?

  • “Aniccaṃ, Bhante.”

“Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vā taṃ sukhaṃ vā”ti?

  • “Dukkhaṃ, Bhante.”

“Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vipari­ṇāma­dhammaṃ, kallaṃ nu taṃ samanupassituṃ: ‘etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’”ti?

  • “No, hetaṃ, Bhante.” 

5. The first question was, “Bhikkhus: is any rūpa nicca or anicca?” or “Bhikkhus: can any rūpa be kept to one’s satisfaction or cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction?”

And the bhikkhus answer: “It cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction, Venerable Sir”.

  • Here it is to be noted that “rūpa” can be either internal or external. There are many rūpa in this world that are “permanent,” at least compared to our lifetimes. For example, an item made of gold or a diamond can last millions of years. But neither can be kept to “our satisfaction” since we will have to give them up when we die.

6. The second question: “Will such an entity lead to suffering or happiness?” And the bhikkhus answer: “Suffering, Venerable Sir”.

  • Here it is essential to see that if an entity is not permanent, whether that will lead to suffering: How many people suffered when Bin Laden got killed? Only those who liked him to live! Many people rejoiced in his demise. See details in “Does the First Noble Truth Describe only Suffering?“.
  • The third question: “Will such an entity that cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction, that leads to suffering,  and is a viparināma dhamma, should be considered as “myself or mine, or has any substance?” And the bhikkhus answer: “No reason to think so, Venerable Sir”.

Then the Buddha explained that those characteristics of anicca, dukkha, anatta also hold for vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa.

Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta Are Related and Universal

7. Here we need to pay attention to the sequence of the three questions. The Buddha was pointing out that no “rūpa” can be kept to our satisfaction. Forming attāchment to such rūpa will lead to suffering. Therefore, there is no reason to consider them having any substance. Anicca leads to dukkhā and anatta because we have nicca saññā about such (anicca) rūpa.

  • Of course, the same holds for vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa.
  • This relationship among anicca, dukkha, anatta was pointed out as “Yad aniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ, yaṃ dukkhaṃ tad anattā.” in the Ajjhattānicca Sutta in the Samyutta Nikāya. See, “Anicca, dukkhā, Anattā – Wrong Interpretations“.
  • Therefore, anicca, dukkha, anatta are UNIVERSAL characteristics applicable to anything in this world.
Impermanence Does Not Always Lead to Suffering

8. It is essential to realize that the Buddha was not referring to just one’s body. Anicca applies to all saṅkhāra and sankata. Nothing in this world can be kept to our satisfaction: “Sabbē saṅkhārā aniccā”. By the way, it is superfluous to say, “all saṅkhāra are impermanent.” Of course, all saṅkhāra arise and fall. How can saṅkhāra be permanent anyway?

  • Furthermore, “impermanence” does not ALWAYS lead to suffering. When Osama bin Laden died, most people were happy.
  • However, bin Laden’s death caused suffering to his followers. In both cases, the statement, “if something cannot be maintained to one’s satisfaction, that causes suffering” holds. The death of bin Laden caused suffering only to his followers.
  • If we have a headache/injury/disease, and if it became permanent, would we not suffer? It is a good thing that those conditions are impermanent so that we can get rid of them with medical treatment.

9. We strive to accumulate “good stuff,” but will have to leave them all behind at death. When we go through the rebirth process, we just repeat this process in each life.

  • In most rebirths, the suffering is great, and in some, there is happiness (human, deva, and Brahma realms.) But such “good rebirths” are encountered very rarely. The Buddha said that the lowest four realms are the “home base” for the living beings; they may visit other realms once-in-a-while, but always have to come back and spend the most time in the home base.
  • That is why the Buddha said this never-ending process of the cycle of rebirths, where we suffer so much, is fruitless, and one is truly helpless. That is anattā.
  • It does not make sense to say because of anicca and dukkhā, we have “no-self” or “no-soul”. Instead, as long as we have the wrong perception of anicca about anything in “this world”, we are subject to suffering, and thus we are truly helpless, anattā.
Girimananda Sutta

10. Girimananda Sutta (AN 10.60) is another critical sutta in the Tipiṭaka that describes anicca in the most profound sense. The Buddha delivered this sutta to Ven. Ananda (for him to recite to Ven. Girimananda, an Arahant, who was in pain due to an ailment). Here is a key phrase (in the middle of the sutta):

Katamā cānanda (ca Ananda), sabba­saṅ­khā­resu aniccha saññā?

Idhānanda (Idha Ananda) bhikkhu sabba­saṅ­khā­resu aṭṭīyati harāyati jigucchati.

Ayaṃ vuccatānanda (vuccati Ananda), sabba­saṅ­khā­resu aniccha saññā.

Translated:

“Ananda, What is the (correct) perception of all saṅkhāra?

“Ananda, all saṅkhāra are like meatless bones, without substance, to be rejected like urine and feces.”

“That is Ananda, how one should perceive all saṅkhāra.”

11. Here the Buddha is describing the characteristics of all saṅkhāra (“sabba” is “all”).

  • Aṭṭi” is “bone”. A dog enjoys chewing a bone. But a bone has no nutrition or taste. Most of the time, the dog’s gum starts bleeding, and that is what it tastes. But the dog does not realize that and values a bone very highly.
  • Hara” is “substance”, and “harāyati” is without substance.
  • Furthermore, “ji” and “gu” (pronounced “Jee” and “goo”) are the Pāli and Sinhala words for “urine” and “feces”. As we already know, “icca” (Pronounced “ichcha”) means “like”. Thus “jiguccati” pronounced “jiguchchathi” means “it is no different than liking urine or feces”. Note that “jiguccati” is “ji” + “gu” + iccati” means “a liking for urine and feces.”
  • All (abhi)saṅkhāra should be avoided (but this applies only at the Arahant stage).

12. Another critical point here is to note that the Buddha was talking about the “anicca saññā”, where saññā or perception is one of the main mental factors or cētasikaAnicca is a perception in our minds as we pointed out in the discussion on the Anattā Lakkhana Sutta above.

  • Impermanence is a physical reality of things in the universe. Scientists know quite well that nothing in our universe is permanent. But that does not provide them with the perception of anicca. No scientist can attain Nibbāna via comprehending impermanence.
Anicca Does Not Mean Impermanence

13. Thus it is quite clear that anicca does not mean “impermanence”. The Pāli words for impermanence are aniyata and addhuva. Once one understands the true nature of the world, one will realize that any saṅkhāra (thought, speech, and action that is focused on attāining pleasurable things) is not to be valued. None can be maintained to one’s satisfaction and will only lead to suffering at the end.

  • The fruitlessness of ALL saṅkhāra is perceived only at the Arahant stage. We cannot even begin to comprehend that yet. That is why an Arahant is said to see the burden associated with even breathing (which is a kāya saṅkhāra). Anything we do to live in this world is a saṅkhāra.
  • Initially, we should try to comprehend the unsuitability of apunnābhi abhisaṅkhāra, those associated with immoral actions. Since we can grasp the consequences of such sinful actions, we CAN get our minds to reject them. That is enough to get to the Sotāpanna stage.
  • Once we do that, our cleansed minds can begin to see the fruitlessness of punnābhi abhisaṅkhāra, and then even the pleasures of arupavacara jhānic states (anenjhabhi abhisaṅkhāra).
Iccha Sutta (Samyutta Nikāya)

14. The “Iccha Sutta (SN 1.69)” clearly describes what “icca” (and thus what anicca) is:

Kenassu bajjhatī loko, kissa vinayāya muccati;
Kissassu vippahānena, sabbaṃ chindati bandhanan” ti.

Icchāya bajjhatī loko, icchā vinayāya muccati;
Icchāya vippahānena, sabbaṃ chindati bandhanan”ti.

Translated: 

“What binds the world together? How does one get released? How can one gain release?”

“The world is bound by iccha; one becomes free by losing iccha, one becomes free of all bonds by losing iccha.”

The word “icca” means “liking” and is closely related to “nicca”. Of course, “nicca” means the perception that one can maintain those things to one’s satisfaction (and “anicca” implies the opposite: “na + icca”). The perception of nicca leads to icca, i.e., one believes that worldly things can provide everlasting happiness, and thus one likes to hold on to them. Just like an octopus grabs stuff with all its eight legs and will not let go, humans (and other beings too) grab onto to worldly things with the hope of enjoying them.

  • Note that in this sutta, the word “iccha” is used instead of “icca” to emphasize that “strong attachment” as in the Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta discussed above.   
The Key Problem with Sutta Interpretations

15. There are many, many suttā in the Tipiṭaka that describe anicca, dukkha, anatta. But if one starts with the wrong interpretations, some of those suttā can be interpreted the wrong way. Many suttā do not describe the relevant concepts in detail. Instead, a suttā provides a brief description or the niddēsa version. The commentaries (Sinhala Atthakathā) were supposed to give the detailed (patiniddēsa) explanations; see, “Sutta – Introduction“.

  • The root cause for the confusion has been the acceptance of the Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa as THE key commentary by Theravada tradition.
  • Nowadays, most bhikkhus do not read the Tipiṭaka or the remaining three original commentaries that are in the Tipiṭaka. They just follow what is in the Visuddhimagga. That has been the single-most obstacle for people attāining Nibbāna for the past many hundreds of years.
  • Luckily, we have three of the original commentaries (even earlier than the Sinhala Atthakathā) preserved in the Tipiṭaka. See, “Misinterpretations of Buddha Dhamma” and “Preservation of the Dhamma“.

Then there is the following sutta which clearly states that the Buddha rejected both “self” and “no-self”, even according to conventional translations.

 Channa Sutta – Anatta Does Not Mean “No-Self”

16. The “Channa Sutta (SN 22.90)” clearly says anatta does not mean “no-self,” even in a “traditional” English translation: “Channa Sutta: To Channa (SN 22.90) “:
“Everything exists”: That is one extreme. “Everything doesn’t exist”: That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle: From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications. From fabrications, consciousness. Similarly, to name-&-form, the six sense faculties, contact, feeling, craving, clinging/sustenance, becoming (bhava), and birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress & suffering.”

  • “Everything doesn’t exist” in the above translates to “no-self” when applied to a “living being.” As far as a “person” is concerned, “self” is one extreme, and “no-self” is the other extreme. Therefore, it wrong to say either “a person exists” or “a person does not exist.”
  • Most Theravada websites (including the above sites) and texts today translate “anatta” as “no-self.” But, it is clear from their translations (especially of the Channa Sutta) that the Buddha rejected this “no-self” view.
  • Whether it is a living being or the whole world, it is not correct to say they “exist” or “do not exist.” Things exist when suitable causes and conditions (per Paṭicca Samuppāda) are there.
  • Also, see, “Atta – Two Very Different Meanings.”

Next, “If Everything is Anicca Should We Just give up Everything?“, ………..

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